From Europe to the Atlantic coast of America & on to the Pacific coast during the 17C-19C, settlers moved West encountering a variety of Indigenous Peoples who had lived on the land for centuries.
Charles Grignion I (English engraver, 1717–1810) engraving after Benjamin West (American artist, 1738-1820) Indians delivering up the English captives to Colonel Bouquet, event in Pontiac's Rebellion. Because many children taken as captives had been adopted into Native families, their forced return often resulted in emotional scenes, as depicted in this engraving based on a painting by Benjamin West.
Pontiac's Rebellion & early Biological Warfare
Pontiac's Rebellion was a war launched in 1763 by North American Indians who were dissatisfied with British policies in the Great Lakes region after the British victory in the French & Indian War/Seven Years' War (1754–1763). The conflict is named after its most famous participant, the Ottawa leader Pontiac. Warriors from numerous tribes joined the uprising in an effort to drive British soldiers & settlers out of the region.
Contributing to the outbreak of war was a religious awakening sweeping through Indian settlements in the early 1760s. The movement was fed by discontent with the British as well as food shortages & epidemic disease. Neolin, known as the "Delaware Prophet", who called upon Indians to shun the trade goods, alcohol, & weapons of the whites. Merging elements from Christianity into traditional religious beliefs, Neolin told listeners that the Master of Life was displeased with the Indians for taking up the bad habits of the white men, & that the British posed a threat to their very existence. "If you suffer the English among you," said Neolin, "you are dead men. Sickness, smallpox, & their poison [alcohol] will destroy you entirely."
The war began in May 1763 when American Indians, alarmed by policies imposed by British General Jeffrey Amherst, attacked a number of British forts & settlements. Eight forts were destroyed, & hundreds of colonists were killed or captured, with many more fleeing the region. Hostilities came to an end after British Army expeditions in 1764 led to peace negotiations over the next 2 years. The Indians were unable to drive away the British but did prompt the British government to modify the policies tward the Native Americans.
Colonists in western Pennsylvania fled to the safety of Fort Pitt after the outbreak of the war. Nearly 550 people crowded inside, including more than 200 women & children. Simeon Ecuyer, the Swiss-born British officer in command, wrote that "We are so crowded in the fort that I fear disease…; the smallpox is among us." Fort Pitt was attacked on June 22, 1763, primarily by Delawares.
For Amherst, who before the war had dismissed the possibility that the Indians would offer any effective resistance to British rule, the military situation over the summer became increasingly grim. He wrote his subordinates, instructing them that captured enemy Indians should "immediately be put to death". To Colonel Henry Bouquet at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who was preparing to lead an expedition to relieve Fort Pitt, Amherst made the following proposal on about June 29, 1763: "Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them."
Bouquet agreed, replying to Amherst on July 13: "I will try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands, & take care not to get the disease myself." Amherst responded favorably on July 16: "You will do well to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race."
As it turned out, officers at the besieged Fort Pitt had already attempted to do what Amherst & Bouquet were still discussing, apparently without having been ordered to do so by Amherst or Bouquet. During a parley at Fort Pitt on June 24, 1763, Ecuyer gave representatives of the besieging Delawares two blankets & a handkerchief that had been exposed to smallpox, hoping to spread the disease to the Indians in order to end the siege. This was not the first time that a crude form of biological warfare had been attempted in the region: in 1761, American Indians had attempted to poison the well at Fort Ligonier using an animal carcass.
It is uncertain whether the British successfully infected the Indians. Because many American Indians died from smallpox during Pontiac's Rebellion, some historians concluded that the attempt was successful, but many scholars now doubt that conclusion. One reason is that the outbreak of smallpox among the Ohio Indians apparently preceded the blanket incident. Furthermore, the Indians outside Fort Pitt kept up the siege for more than a month after receiving the blankets, apparently unaffected by any outbreak of disease. The two Delaware chiefs who handled the blankets were in good health a month later as well. Finally, because the disease was already in the area, it may have reached Indian villages through a number of vectors. Eyewitnesses reported that native warriors contracted the disease after attacking infected white settlements, & they may have spread the disease upon their return home.
The ruthlessness of the conflict was a reflection of a growing racial divide between British colonists & American Indians. The British government sought to prevent further racial violence by issuing the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which created a boundary between colonists & Indians.
American Artist Benjamin West
Benjamin West (1738-1820) was the 10th child of a rural innkeeper in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in October, 1738, & died exaulted in London, in March, 1820. Before his ascension to historical allegory painter for English royalty, he began learning his craft as a humble portraitist in Philadelphia. West told John Galt, his biographer, that when he was a child, Native Americans showed him how to make paint by mixing some clay from the river bank with bear grease in a pot.
During his years painting in the British American colonies, his portraits exhibit a modest attempt to emulate the baroque & rococo styles, which he probably observed in Philadelphia. His modest American portrait compositions also exhibit some knowledge of English mezzotint portraits reflecting the works of Peter Lely (1618–160) & Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723). West told a friend that a "Mr. Hide (Haidt), a German, gave him instruction. Johann Valentine Haidt (1700-1780), a Moravian evangelist & trained artist, painted not just portraits, but also history & religious paintings. Apparently, Benjamin West became determined to paint inspiring historical & religious compositions as well.
He later wrote, "Most undoubtedly had not (I) been settled in Philadelphia I should not have embraced painting as a profession." However, his early move away from Philadelphia to England was necessary for him to work in a country where artists were commissioned to paint inspiring depictions of history's real & imagined indispensable men & women who made extreme sacrifices & performed noble deeds. In the American colonies, the gentry paid for portraits, not inspiration.
Benjamin West became a painter of historical scenes, sometimes including Native Americans, around & after the time of the American War of Independence & the Seven Years' War. During his 22 years in America, he was a fairly typical provincial artist; but his choice to leave the colonies in 1760, for Europe & England led to his appointment as the official painter at the court of King George III & to his becoming co-founder of the Royal Academy in London, where 3 generations of fellow American students would return home from his tutelage to impact the art of the emerging republic.